Railroad Tycoon III
Published by Take 2 Interactive and Pop Top Software
Released October 2003 for PC
Mac OS X version ported by Macsoft, released in late 2004

Somebody dropped the ball with this one.

Capitalizing on the success of the Railroad Tycoon Series, Railroad Tycoon III once again puts you at the helm of major transportation companies tasked with outsmarting the competition and building a passenger and freight network to bring cargo from one place to another (oh, and to make a fortune in the process). Railroad Tycoon II did an excellent job of this, combining the strategic elements of economic design with the coolness of trains - it was one of the few games where being extremely anal was the key to winning and where mistakes weren't really felt until years (game-wise) in the future; buy the wrong industry and watch your profits take a slow nosedive, then try to figure out where exactly it was you were hemorrhaging money, or connect to the wrong city and try somehow to make it profitable. Tycoon II was released in 1998 and was never ported to Mac OS X - it's the only reason I still occasionally boot into OS 9.

Assuming they followed the plan, Railroad Tycoon III was supposed to be a major improvement - more kinds of cargo, more maps, more options in playing the stock market. All those things did come through, to some extent, but other areas were sacrificed for the sake of one thing, the bane of real-time strategy fans everywhere: 3D.

The fun of previous games in the series lay in figuring out what to ship where and how to make a profit - bring coal and iron to Chicago, smelt it into steel, ship it to Detroit (along with rubber from Chicago's ports), make cars and bring the finished product back to Chicago to turn a tidy profit, particularly if you happen to own all the industries involved. The developers saw fit to automate this - now you merely connect two cities and run a train between them and the train's consist is essentially handled for you. It can be overridden on a train to train basis, not globally - you can specify a consist of any cargo, pure freight or pure express (passenger, mail and/or troops) as well as doing it car by car, but defaults to automatic management and (here's the kicker) there's no easy way to see which industries around your stations are producing and accepting what. You know that Baltimore wants cattle, but can't easily see what it will be converted to so you can't really set up complicated routes.

The game's focus has shifted from running a railroad to watching it run.

The 3D modeling is gorgeous, I have to admit, but detracts from the actual gameplay. This, combined with the horribly twisted and non-intuitive user interface (no menus at all, just oddly placed toggle buttons. It's the same interface as Tycoon II, just nonhierarchical and cluttered. It makes the game, if not unplayable, then not much fun. The camera controls are similarly difficult to cope with, though fiddling with the default settings a bit and changing the initial keymap helps.

As much as I wanted to like this game, there's no real reason to play it if the computer handles all the details for you and expects you to merely decide where to built and what routes to take. This one's a prime example of sequel envy.

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